Two found dead after six-month search

LEBANON, Ohio – They were on a hunt for bargains, closing in on their outlet-mall destination.

They didn’t quite make it.

Instead, the two women from a retirement home community became subjects of a massive search by land and air, across parts of three states, that uncovered no signs of them for nearly six months.

It was all probably because of a simple driving mistake.

“I think they just missed their exit,” Maj. John Newsom of the Warren County sheriff’s department said yesterday.

Mary Ellen Walters, 68, and Ada Wasson, 80, apparently tried to circle around but never got back on Interstate 71. Their car and remains were found in a hayfield in north-central Kentucky about eight miles from their destination, authorities said.

“They got off the interstate at Exit 34,” Newsom said.

They should have taken Exit 44.

The pair left their homes at the Otterbein Retirement Living Communities north of Cincinnati on April 19, Warren County officials said. Neighbors recounted them talking about going to a J.C. Penney outlet on Interstate 71, either in Columbus to the north, or in Carrollton, Ky., to the south.

Authorities know Wasson filled her car with gasoline the night of April 18. But in the weeks after the disappearance, there was no activity on the women’s credit or bank cards.

Police and volunteers searched thousands of square miles in a three-state area in the weeks after the women failed to return to their homes among about 800 residents of the not-for-profit community with ties to the United Methodist Church.

Investigators studied store videotapes, checked under bridges and passed out thousands of fliers. Police consulted with FBI experts and sent alerts across the nation.

Finally, a hunter early Sunday found the car and the women’s remains about eight miles south of Carrollton, in a location not visible from the road or air, Otterbein officials said.

Wasson was a widow with no children. Walters was a retired United Methodist minister and a mother of three. Her husband was in Florida with his ailing mother when she disappeared.

Autopsies were being done yesterday, and the official identification will have to come from Kentucky state forensic anthropologist Emily Craig. But the sheriff’s office said there was little doubt what the result would be.

“It’s unlikely these two bodies are anybody else,” Newsom said.

Walters’ remains were next to the vehicle, and those of Wasson were about 600 feet away between the car and the interstate, Newsom said. He said it’s likely the women followed a dirt path from a paved highway into the field to turn around, but the vehicle went down an embankment and Wasson walked toward the interstate in an effort to get help.

“It would have been difficult for her, at her age, to make it there,” Newsom said. “She was trying. God love her, she was trying. But it just didn’t work out.”

Despite an extensive search, the vehicle and the women’s bodies had not been found because of summertime foliage, and the field had not been used for at least a couple of years, Newsom said.

“Although this story hasn’t ended the way we wanted and had hoped, we are thankful there is an end to the mystery,” said Brad Nixon, Walters’ son-in-law.